Bill Wright is a photographer, writer, businessman, philanthropist, and all-around engaged citizen. His advocacy for programs that educate and inspire the public has extended for more than four decades.
In 1985, Wright was appointed by Governor Mark White to the Board of Directors of the Texas Council for the Humanities (TCH), now Humanities Texas. As chair of the board from 1986-1987, Wright safely guided the organization through an economic crisis, budget cuts, and national debates about federal funding for the humanities. In 1988, President Reagan tapped Wright to serve on the National Council on the Humanities, where he advocated for state humanities funding as chair of the State Councils committee.
Today, Wright continues to facilitate civic education. He recently organized presentations by top scientists of the MacDonald Observatory for students at local high schools and colleges in Abilene. The scientists spoke about their discovery of the largest known black hole in the universe. Wright's interests are varied, and his enthusiasm for creating opportunities for public discussion and reflection is unmatched.
Wright reflected on his tenure on the board of Humanities Texas during an oral history interview with Erica Whittington on February 18, 2013. As he observed, "If you're committed to something, you don't lose interest."
Bill Wright: I grew up here in Abilene and graduated from Abilene High. I went to Rice for a couple of years as a physics major, but I flunked German. I went to The University of Texas at Austin to make it up and never went back. While I was at UT for two years, I took courses all over the university. I audited astronomy and took philosophy and all of the stuff that I would never have taken in a normal curriculum, stuff you can't do anymore. You know, they're pushing you out. I got by with summer school and got out in four years. I finally graduated with a degree in business administration and marketing.
I came back to Abilene and went to work with my dad. He was a Gulf Oil distributor. After a year we formed our own company, and I became a Conoco jobber. They were with us for thirty-five years. We had our own business. We got into the convenience store business and the truck stop business. I was involved in various other things. My partners and I put in the cable system in Abilene, and I was involved in several television stations and an Internet company and so on and so on.
But in 1989, I believe it was, I sold my business interest, my primary business, and I've been writing and photographing ever since.
Erica Whittington: So, how did you become involved with humanities in Texas?
BW: I got appointed to the Texas Committee for the Humanities by Governor Mark White because I was active in the Cultural Affairs Council in Abilene, and I thought it would be a nice thing to do. As a writer, I wanted to advance that. I was president of the school board here for several years and on it for twelve. So I'd been deeply involved in education. I was on the Hardin-Simmons University board and the executive committee for a number of years and so [the TCH board] seemed like a nice public service that I would be very interested in. It turned out I was, and so I was elected then by the membership. [Later] they supported me to be named to the National Council on the Humanities by President Reagan. I served throughout his administration. I was into Clinton's administration when my term ran out, so I served under several appointees and that was very interesting.
EW: You became the [TCH board] chair for '86 and '87. How did the meetings operate?
BW: Our whole board would approve grants.
EW: So that was a primary function?
BW: Yes. But during the time I was on the board, we went through several different modifications of that, depending on the budget and depending on whether we had money to grant. That changed almost every year based on our budget. I think that probably is different now, but basically we still have board members and they meet on an annual basis, more than that actually.
During my term we established the Friends group [now the Friends of Humanities Texas (link)]. That was a strategy to get more income to support different initiatives, and I noted that it has really grown.
BW: One of my initiatives was to use the arts model and ideally have a committee in every community in Texas that would organize humanities events. Normally these things were handled by libraries, but I wanted to see it more formalized in a humanities council for every community. Then local humanities councils could partner with the state organization [TCH], and have access to all of those exhibitions. We could help place them and all of that. That sort of has fizzled, really. We haven't really been able to maintain that organization, primarily, I think, because there's no money from the state to support it, so there's no reason to have it. Just let the library handle it or other interested citizens.
EW: Now, you got an organization like that started here in Abilene, right?
BW: Yes, through the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council. It's amazing where these things lead. We had a program called "Russians Meet Middle America," and we had some lectures on Russian history and culture by different people. There was a group of Russians that was touring the United States, and we were able to get them to come to Abilene. We hosted them over here at our house for dinner and had a group meeting with the Cultural Affairs Council. They stayed in different homes and I got pretty well acquainted with them. We stayed in touch. Two of them were really peaceniks, I guess. They were artists. They were both physicists, but they were heavily involved in the arts in Russia. One of them was one of the best-known entertainers in the Soviet Union at that time. This was the Soviet Union prior to the wall coming down. Then the third guy, who I thought was the KGB representative to make sure they didn't go rogue, turned out to be an interesting guy. Alexander Prokhanov was his name. So when Alice and I had a chance to go to Russia, I contacted him and said, "We'd like to see you." He wrote back and said that he looked forward to it. I remember clearly. We planned a trip by ourselves through the Soviet Union—Moscow, Uzbekistan, Georgia, you know, we just made the rounds. It was tough traveling because we didn't speak Russian and there was no escort. We would just go out and get on the airplane.
The next morning [after arriving in Russia], Alexander Prokhanov called . . . and took us to lunch. We had a state car and went all over Moscow, and to the Kremlin. What I wanted to do was meet Russian photographers. I had a Russian exchange. That all came about because of Humanities Texas supporting Abilene in a Russian cultural series.
Not only did we exchange photographs, we sent a group of Texas photographs to them, and they in turn, sent us a group of Russian photographs. We kept them, and I gave them to the Ransom Center and the Russians put ours in a museum. Then the NEH got a request for someone to come over and help curate the Russian exhibition. They couldn't handle it because of a prohibition of some sort, and they named me to do it. So I was to do it, and I passed it off to Roy Flukinger, who was the curator at the Ransom Center. The two of us reviewed all of these Russian photographers' work. We made two copies, one of which went to their museum, and one of which came to the Ransom Center. That all came about because of the TCH outreach to Abilene for that project, so you never know how far something goes when a grant is given or when an opportunity presents itself for someone to follow through with a contact.
EW: It seems like the Abilene committee that you started was really active.
BW: We were. For a number of years we were very active and then our budgetary situation got tight. It was hard getting people to a luncheon to hear a speaker, even though public schools were very supportive—we always had school kids come and then they had discussions in their classes. But, you know, the logistics got to be too much to handle at that time. We ought to try to reestablish it, but we did get one started in Lubbock and I think we got one started in Amarillo. Other cities already had them—Dallas, of course, with their humanities institute [the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture].
EW: I read that you guys did Middle Eastern programming and studies and that you did a luncheon series for business leaders.
BW: That's right. Yes, we did all that. But not being able to get them [the community councils] established statewide and thriving the way the Commission on the Arts was able to do with local arts councils was a disappointment to me.
[Then-TCH executive director James] Veninga was a champ. He is the guy that brought us through the budgetary crisis of the 1980s. We all sat down and schemed together what we were going to have to cut. The chair of the board before me, Rene Zentner, was an executive with the Shell Oil Company in Houston, a first-class guy. He's passed away now, but a good friend. We sat down with Jim, and we just had to decide what was going to go and what was going to stay. We had to cut some staff, and we had to chop the magazine.
That was another thing though—another big decision I was involved in. We were catching all sorts of flak because of the name of our magazine, Texas Humanist. Everybody thought we were sponsoring secular humanism, and the churches were up in arms. We were getting a lot of complaints and preachers were talking about it. Anyway, we decided that was a battle we couldn't win. We couldn't educate the whole state, so we changed the name. That was a much better deal.
Jim was so masterful in being able to know what things we could combine and what things we could reorganize. We reorganized our accounting and various things, and we made it through. Not only that—we made it through with the ability to stay not only in existence, but alive, and we did some good things.
EW: So who were some of the people on the board who were the workhorses?
BW: Betty Sue Flowers and Ellen Temple, and they've become lifelong friends—I met them then—and Elena Huckabee, from Houston. I don't even know where she is now, but we saw each other socially from time to time, even after I was off of the board. A number of them were really, really active, and did really good stuff.
EW: It sounds like the board meetings that you had were kind of an all weekend deal. You had a lot of re-grant session talks.
BW: Right, we did. It was usually a business session, but it lasted all day.
EW: What was the goal? I mean, what was your main objective?
BW: Public humanities. I think that what we wanted to do was not only support the academic professionals, but also to get a grassroots awareness of the importance of the humanities.
EW: You came to the board and remained active during a time that we called the "culture wars."
BW: Oh yes, and it was right after I was there that the big deal about Piss Jesus and all that came up, and they wanted to cut out total funding for the arts. See, this was an arts deal. The reason that came about was that there was a difference in the way that the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities worked, and the thing that I noticed was when I was on the NEH council—Lynne Cheney was the chair. She saw to it that we voted on all of the projects for funding that came before us.
EW: The National Council.
BW: The National Council voted on the grants, and if we didn't like one, we voted it down. There was a lot of difference with the way the NEA handled it. They had a little clique of people that decided what artists were worthy and which ones were not. They gave their grants to just a little in-group and you know, they didn't really have the nation represented in those decisions. That was my view, and that might not have been true. But I think they would have never . . . Our NEH would've been criticized—for example, "A Celebration of Voodoo" was a grant proposal by somebody in California. You know, we voted it down. The committee that had originally looked at it had suggested we support it. Well, you know, if we had supported that and the press had gotten ahold of it, you can imagine, it would've been the same kind of outrage, and it wasn't a very good academic study anyway. So that's the difference that I think kept the NEH with more funding than the arts for a period there.
EW: Now what was the difference going from the state level—well, you did the local level humanities in Abilene, then the state at TCH, to serving on the national commission?
BW: Of course, you're responsible for a lot larger deal. Because of my background, they put me on the committee for state programs. In fact, when I first went on, Anne Paolucci was the chairman, and then I became the chairman of the subcommittee on state programs. But anyway, we got to see all of these state programs. I was able to bring ideas back that I'd seen work in other places. It was a really great opportunity for me, and I wanted to make it a good opportunity for the people in Texas that had sent me up there.
EW: Were there great differences in opinion based on the geographic areas that people came from?
BW: Oh yes. Different kinds of programs that were more appropriate to the people up in the Northwest, the Pacific coast, who had an American Indian culture. They had programming dealing with salmon fishermen. They had different kinds of programs that were tailored to that area. That's something that the National Council could not do from a chair in Washington. Certainly, there were problems. Some [state] councils didn't have the good management we had. But obviously the federal government doesn't have good management in every area either, as time has proven.
EW: How did you see the place of Texas in the national humanities?
BW: I'll tell you what, we were one of the leading state councils. I attribute it all to Jim Veninga's leadership.
EW: In terms of the programs that you funded with TCH, were there any that stood out or that were especially memorable?
BW: The ones that I appreciated most were the ones that were developed with grants that we made to communities that were matched with funds from the community. We got credit for it, but it was a community venture. There were so many different things that we could've never imagined. If we were supporting them unilaterally, the projects would've never taken the shape they did. You can't just sit in Austin or in Washington—you can help and you can give guidelines and you can make suggestions, but it's the imagination and the creativity of the people out in these communities that are so magical, and that's what the humanities are about—imagination and creativity.
EW: Did you get to go out to many of these projects after deciding whether to fund them or not?
BW: No, we did follow-up. They had to make a report about how it turned out, so that was always very interesting. Not all of them were successful. Some of them were total failures, but the vast majority of them were really exciting and very successful.
EW: You did several photographic exhibitions as projects with TCH too, right?
BW: Right, and those were very helpful. We started the project of "Visions of Texans," I believe. That was a project of mine that I got the Texas Photographic Society to manage. That all worked really well, because we got the exhibition together and it traveled in Mexico. I don't know where it is now. I think it was given to some institution in Mexico, but it was a very successful one. It opened in San Antonio.
EW: The Texas Council for the Humanities did a ton of work on the schools and the curriculum, which I guess was a natural, based on your interests, since you'd been on the school board. "Texas in the Twenty-First Century" was the project.
BW: Jim Veninga came up with the "Texas in the Twenty-First Century" project, and it was really well received. It was really well done.
EW: That involved public hearings and lots of activities around the state?
BW: Yes. But let's see, there were some other things. Another thing that we got started—we started the Alliance, the Friends organization. It changed its form, but we also brought in the Texas Humanities Resource Center.
EW: How did that come about?
BW: Financially, the Resource Center was on hard times, and they were packaged with The University of Texas at Arlington. And UT-Arlington wanted to just take it over.
I didn't want to see that and Jim [Veninga] didn't either, so we formed a company or a separate organization and brought it in to the TCH. Later on it was just folded into Humanities Texas, and it's just a part of our operation. Frances Leonard, who ran it, was really a wonderful scholar. She made it really sing. I don't know how it's doing now, but I presume it's still very successful.
EW: Yes, it's very successful. It's the current exhibitions program, and there's not much like it in the country.
BW: Well we were distinguished. We had stuff going all over the United States, and I think we got a lot of national recognition out of that.
One other program that didn't happen during the time I was chair, but part of it was going on then—Rene Zentner, who was the chair before me, worked with Shell and started the "Texas Minutes" program, where we had a little short history quote as a public service announcement, and that went all over the state. That was a brilliant project, and Rene deserves credit for that. It continued on for a year or so. That was really good. In fact, [current executive director Michael L. Gillette] is doing something like this again.
EW: Texas Originals.
BW: Texas Originals. And those are things that really spread the humanities out to everyday people.
BW: Economics is a humanities subject. When people read, attend lectures, and begin to understand the implications of political actions, I think the country is benefiting.
EW: So there's a place for federal funding to provide for that kind of conversation?
BW: Absolutely, there are things that the NEH can do that the states cannot do. For example, the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War— that's a federal project, clearly. But the little play in Fort Davis is a state project and a local project. There are places for both if we are going to serve the humanities well.
I think our focus has been on education in one respect, maybe too narrowly. It might be that we need to spend less time in process and more time in subject content. I think Humanities Texas is doing that, with just what happened here today: the teacher workshop. [Wright had just attended a one-day teacher workshop in Abilene on slavery, secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction organized by Humanities Texas.] We need to put our focus back into content, and we're doing that, and I'm happy to see it.
EW: Originally when the state programs got started, I think the idea was to conduct programs that addressed both public policy and the humanities. Do you think that is a model that would address some of that problem?
BW: In the policy area, it's hard for us to make any impact. It really is, because legislatures change. Governments change, and policy today is forgotten tomorrow. The policy things don't survive. That's a generalization, certainly some of them do, but I think that it's hard to put a policy in place that's going to endure, because everybody has a different idea about policy. But content endures. That's the reason I think that if we can somehow create more interest and more professionalism in our . . .
Let me tell you something. When I was walking, doing a trek in Nepal, we were in an area that had not been opened to Westerners. You'd walk along and you'd come to a little village—not even a village, maybe just a few buildings. Those kids would run out to you with their books. "Let me read to you in English, Let me read to you." And: "Read to me."
BW: Excited. They were made to be excited by a teacher. I mean, it didn't just happen. Someone told them it was important to learn English, and to be able to read. I'm talking about almost a Stone Age culture, and they had nothing. They didn't have air-conditioning, they didn't have cafeterias, they didn't have desks, they didn't have chairs, but they were interested in learning because a teacher was interested in teaching.
EW: You had a lot to do with the international and cultural exchange agenda that came out of the 1980s and 1990s in Texas. Part of that was the recognition of the global economy, and the cultural part of that, and the interest in stimulating business by learning about each other.
BW: Today, it's an international world, and if you can't respect other cultures, and if you can't understand other cultures, you're not going to go very far in big business. In a mixed economy and society, you have to be sensitive to other people's cultures if you're going to run a successful business.
We got Lynne Cheney down to Texas when she was [NEH] chair to talk with Brooks Austin, who was the publisher and editor of Texas Business. That magazine didn't succeed, I guess, but I think that that was a good meeting to introduce the importance of the humanities to businessmen. At that time there was not quite as much emphasis on engineering and science, which require a lot of different kinds of training. Businesses were looking for well-rounded people to become executives who were versed in a lot of different areas. That momentum has changed, so that it's not as important for a business owner to look for a humanities-trained person. Consequently, my guess is that humanities in college are losing ground vis-à-vis the more technical areas such as business. I think that one of the reasons that I enjoyed a business career was the fact that I had studied physics, chemistry, math, philosophy, history, geology, and astronomy, and all of these different courses that you can't do now. I couldn't go to UT and take the courses that I took and still get out with a business degree; they wouldn't allow it. You know, you're programmed. And so where do you get that? You have to get it outside of the academic curriculum, and that's where Humanities Texas comes in. We can provide that for people who are interested enough to seize it.
Then also, the more recognition we can get as to the importance of the humanities, the more businesses will seek people who are rounded in the humanities for employees.